Art Therapy and Addiction

Being addicted to alcohol or drugs is chaos. Addictions develop from many sources including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, stress, childhood trauma, and more. Each person who suffers from an alcohol or drug addiction reacts differently to their substance use disorder.

As there are many factors related to addiction, there are also many different treatments available to those who need them. Some of the main treatments include inpatient rehab, outpatient rehab, individual therapy, group therapy, holistic therapy, and more.

Art therapy is an adjunct treatment that has shown an increase in popularity. Many recovering addicts find it extremely beneficial because it allows them to express and relieve their emotions in ways they might not otherwise. When participating in art therapy, clients can cope with and heal from past trauma or incidents. They can reduce shame related to these incidents, as well.

One of the best things about art therapy is there aren’t any rules. The client can express themselves freely. Even if it isn’t offered through your rehab treatment center, it may be worth exploring on the outside.

Purpose of Art Therapy

After struggling with alcohol or drug addiction, individuals often enter rehab disoriented or confused. They know they want and need to stop using, but that’s all they may know. They may not know even why they started. Art therapy can help clients to explore a healthier side of themselves.

Art also can stimulate the brain, heal it, make new connections across the cortices. Many artists produce work into their 80s and their brains may have been healthier because of it.

Just looking at art can be therapeutic. However, when creating art or participating in art therapy, clients can learn coping skills, manage emotions, heal from trauma, learn patience, build self-confidence, and much more.

Although producing a good or great work of art isn’t the main purpose, if one does so the sense of accomplishment may be therapeutic, too.  Being able to learn what you are capable of doing is a major step forward in recovery. Many recovering addicts find art therapy to be a most useful tool in creating their newfound self.

Talk to a therapist or another medical professional before taking on art therapy. Make sure it is the best choice for your wellness and recovery. Since it is a holistic treatment option, there are limited side effects. However, it is always still best to check with a professional before pursuing any type of treatment.

Art Therapy Expression

Art therapy is not confined to just one type of art. Clients in recovery can express themselves through all forms of art.  Some of the most common art forms include:

  • Dancing
  • Sculpting
  • Drawing
  • Painting
  • Singing
  • Playing musical instruments
  • Cooking
  • Making paper art
  • Making jewelry
  • Sewing
  • Creative writing
  • Woodworking
  • Acting

These are just a few of the more obvious ways of making art. Talent isn’t required. The purpose of art therapy isn’t to make great art but to heal. Through the art an individual creates, the trained art therapist can learn something about the underlying problems leading to the substance use disorder.

By expressing themselves art therapy pushes individuals to look inside of themselves in some way. If someone wants to use music, watercolor, oils, or something else to express themselves, they can do it.

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Types of Art Therapy

Musical instruments can be great tools when recovering from an addiction. Playing or learning to play an instrument can be a great way to discover yourself in recovery, to cope, or distract. There are online videos and local classes to teach you. The time and effort are well worth the rewards. It’s a gift you can share. Acting can be a great tool for recovering addicts who want to be someone else for a bit. It offers a different perspective and can teach forgiveness. Even the bad guy in a play doesn’t think he’s the villain.

Many recovering addicts who participate in acting art therapy sessions can develop healthy and positive connections in their recovery. Making jewelry is a form of artistic self-expression and a relaxing activity. Making something that you or others can then wear can help to build self-esteem, self-confidence, improve focus, and manage emotions whether you use clay, wire, beads, metals, textiles, resin, glass, or other material. Making jewelry can be your unique way to express yourself. Another type of art therapy you can try in recovery is sewing, crocheting, knitting, or other textile arts. They are just like any other art form but will require more practice and patience to learn. It is a skill one develops over time. Sewing can be very relaxing and the finished results can increase your self-confidence.

You might want to make clothing, blankets, curtains, rugs, towels, washcloths, hats, or scarves. In time you may even start selling your items for a profit. This could be a nice way to earn some money during your recovering lifestyle. The possibilities seem endless with woodworking as a way to express yourself in recovery. You can make coat racks, lazy Susans, tables, chairs, and so much more. It can take a lot of effort to transform a piece of wood into something practical yet beautiful, but you might find the process soothing and the results rewarding. You can start with the basics, such as building a shelf, and take on bigger projects as you learn more.

Painting may be the most familiar form of art and art therapy. Painting can be done with fingers of brush dipped into oils, acrylics, watercolor, or any other type of paint. Painting is a peaceful, soothing, and quiet activity. The artist can express their emotions through the paint onto paper, canvas, a vase, a wall, or even skin. Alcohol and drugs hide emotions, but painting channels them and allows you to get back to your true self.

Like other media, painting improves self-esteem and self-awareness, lowers stress and anxiety, and develops social and relationship skills. It’s difficult to learn to paint like a master,m but even toddlers can finger paint or make crude brushstrokes.  Later, you can learn new techniques to express yourself. It might even help to seek inspiration by painting at a local park or in front of a museum.

Many people already sing without thinking much of it. They may be driving down the road and start singing along to their favorite song. Recovering addicts use this as a form of therapy, expressing their emotions through the words that they are singing. They might feel better after singing a positive or inspirational song or writing and singing songs. Singing does reduce stress and pain and can improve communication and concentration.

Baking and cooking are culinary arts and forms of art therapy, too. When you transform ingredients into satisfying, healthy dishes or tasty desserts, you rewarding yourself and anyone else who eats it.

Good nutrition and healthy cooking are extremely helpful for recovery from addiction. People with addictions tend to eat junk or don’t eat. Learning to feed yourself can promote self-esteem, patience, creativity, and confidence. Learning how to make healthier meals and what not to eat  can  improve your health in recovery

Avoid sugar. When someone stops using drugs, their brain has cravings for such hyper-palatable foods because sugar is a transfer addiction. By cooking and baking food for yourself, you can control how much sugar and other unhealthy ingredients go into it. Cooking is also fun. You may even want to sign up for a cooking class in your area or online as well.

Paper art can help recovering addicts as well: origami or other types of paper-folding, paper cutting, paper flowers. Making paper art takes planning and focus, time and patience, skills recovering addicts need to learn. In the process, they are rewarded with beautiful pieces of art.

Recovering addicts can express their feelings through the art they are creating. Little details can be added into the art to make them unique and personalized. The possibilities are almost endless.

There are many patterns one can find to start.  As they learn more paper art techniques, recovering addicts can create new paper art ideas. Even beginners find a lot of joy in coming up with ideas and creating art.

Pottery and sculpting are other ways to express oneself in art therapy. The act of turning a ball of clay into a decorative or functional vessel, gently molding it, is soothing and healing for recovering addicts who have experienced trauma. The act can help you to deal with a host of issues and emotions.

Sculpture needn’t be made of clay or stone. You can use wire, paper, glass, wood, found materials, or any combination thereof. It can start with a sketch on paper or creating as you go. This can be intimidating at first, but when you learn the basics, you can start expressing your ideas more freely.

In any therapy, remembering past events and emotions can contribute to their recovery. In art therapy, creative writing assists individuals in putting those memories and emotions into words, organizing them, and even understanding their significance. Writing helps the healing process, making positive changes, and sharing feelings as well. Just by writing a small amount each day greatly benefits the recovering addict.

Creative writing includes fiction: turning the facts or emotions of your life into a story. Journaling is another type of creative writing, whether it is  a bare-bones account of your day, your thoughts and feelings, or poems and affirmations. Expressing yourself in these ways allows you to gain more awareness of emotions you may have suppressed.

It doesn’t matter if you are not a professional writer. The aim isn’t to create great literature (though you can submit your creative writing to a writing contest or a website) but to heal, to assist your recovery. Start by writing a short paragraph about any thoughts you have on your mind first thing in the morning or just before bed. If you need a suggestion, look up writing prompts or ask your therapist.

Dancing is a very expressive form of art. It uses the body in motion to show how you are feeling, what you are thinking. It is less concrete than writing, more abstract than painting. It takes concentration, focus, and awareness. The individual becomes aware of what their body is capable of doing.

Even children dance freestyle, but more complex dance ( hip-hop, tap, and ballet) takes some assistance and training at first. When practicing dancing and self-expression together, individuals develop new dances based on how they are feeling, their struggles, their aspirations.

Dancing, like other forms of physical exercise, allows individuals to release endorphins, which makes them feel better and builds up their strength and fitness. The sense of accomplishment of learning a formal dance, whether line dancing or the tango, improves self-esteem and well-being. Also, like all these forms of art therapy, they can dance anywhere, in or out of rehab. Dancing makes recovering addicts mentally, emotionally, and physically healthier.

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Art Therapy in Rehab Centers

While producing art can be therapeutic, art therapy requires a trained art therapist to analyze the art and the client, to see what the art can reveal about the cause of the addiction. From there, addicts in recovery can learn coping skills, gain confidence, build self-esteem, and become more aware of their emotions and how to manage them. Without this knowledge and these new skills, sobriety and long-term recovery are at greater risk.

Art therapy often involves as well as individual sessions as well. The art therapist may offer prompts to get the recovering addicts thinking. The therapist may state an emotion and have the clients draw something that is provoked by that emotion. The art therapist might ask the recovering addicts to write song lyrics for one of their memories or dreams.

Just as with any kind of treatment or therapy, the process may not be simple. Some methods used in art therapy might not be appropriate for you, while others may help you more than you thought they would. Art therapy is very relaxing. Making art ushers one into a peaceful and calm state. Many recovering addicts find art therapy helps to stabilize their emotions and moods.

Therapy also can dredge up painful memories that challenge your recovery, memories you suppressed because you couldn’t deal with them. Those memories might need to come out, but this might not be the right time. Speak with a therapist or other professional. They can help you to cope and manage your emotions until you can work through the memories.

Never rush your therapy sessions. That won’t make recovery happen sooner. Recovery is a lifelong process, though not always as intense as at the beginning. If you understand this, you may benefit more from the art therapy sessions. Ask your individual or group therapist if art therapy might be a path for you to take in your recovery.

Medical disclaimer:

Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.

Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.

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